There is a lot of complicated and confusing information out there about diet and exercise.
But that is primarily because “experts” want to sell books or patent their own method.
In reality, the true experts agree on the fundamentals that are most important for a healthy life. And that shared understanding is what is most important to know and incorporate into our own routines.
I have read countless books and articles about diet and exercise, and experimented for many years with what works best in my own life. After all of my learning and testing, here are my key takeaways on diet and exercise:
There is doubt that diet plays a central role in health and vitality.
The one thing that all experts agree on is the bulk of your diet should be fruits and vegetables. If you follow just that one piece of advice and make fruits and vegetables at least 50% of what you eat, you will be light years ahead of most other people.
Eat a variety of whatever fruits and vegetables you like (the only things that don’t count are white potatoes or any type of fried vegetables like French Fries). There are valuable nutrients in all fruits and vegetables, so fill your plate with them. If you do that, you will also be crowding out most of the bad stuff.
The rest of your plate can be filled with healthy protein and whole grains. If you are vegan or vegetarian, you can get protein from all kinds of beans, nuts, and seeds. If you eat meat, it is fine to add in some fish, chicken, or beef. But meat should be considered a side dish or condiment, not the main course. Avoid processed meats, such as bacon, sausage, hot dogs, and cold cuts.
Whole grains provide a great source of fiber. You can round out your plate with unprocessed whole grains such as oats, quinoa, or wild rice. Minimize processed grains such as bread and pasta, unless you are an especially savvy shopper and know how to avoid the junk (which is hidden in nearly all packaged bread these days).
Applying this philosophy, a great meal would be a large salad with lots of veggies, quinoa, and some salmon. Or a veggie stir fry over wild rice. Or oatmeal with a heavy dose of mixed berries and walnuts.
If you build your plate around fruits and vegetables, and round it out with healthy protein and whole grains, there just won’t be room for the real problem foods (such as white bread and pasta, and packaged sweet and salty foods). And even when you do indulge from time to time, it won’t be that big of a deal if you normally eat according to this philosophy.
As for beverages, drink water, tea, and coffee (without milk/cream or sweeteners ). A little bit of alcohol is okay, but limit it to a drink or two at night. Avoid sugary drinks such as fruit juice and soda.
This all probably sounds like common sense eating principles, and that is exactly the point. Stick with these basics and forget all of the other complicated stuff. You will be much healthier as a result.
Movement should be an essential part of daily life.
The current exercise guidelines call for 150–300 minutes of exercise per week, which equates to about 30–40 minutes of exercise per day, assuming you exercise most days. I think that gets it about right.
I recommend dedicated cardio exercise for at least 30 minutes per day, with 1–2 off days per week (which would give you at least 150 minutes of exercise for the week right there). I personally go for a 30-minute run in the morning at least 5 days per week, but your form of exercise can be whatever you enjoy most (walking, swimming, cycling, etc.). And feel free to mix it up from one day to the next. I run at a moderate pace, just enough to make me breathe heavy and get a sweat going.
I also recommend some of your exercise be a bit more vigorous (in addition to, or in place of, some of your moderate exercise days). I turn up the intensity by playing squash 1-2 times per week, which taxes my body and my mind with the complex movements and strategy involved. You can dial it up a bit with a sport you enjoy (e.g. soccer, basketball) or any other type of workout that you like (Peloton, group fitness classes, etc.).
You should also build in some strength training and flexibility exercises at least two days per week. You could make this a part of your weekly routine by doing yoga and/or light weights on your cardio off-days (or lighter workout days). While the bulk of your workout routine should be cardio, incorporating some strength training will keep your muscles and bones strong, and flexibility training will keep your body loose and pliable (counteracting the cardio which tends to tighten you up).
To summarize, get at least 30 minutes of cardio exercise nearly every day. Dial up the intensity for 1–2 of the workouts. And round out your routine with strength training and yoga 1–2 days per week.
Beyond your dedicated workouts, use your body as your mode of transportation as much as possible. Walk or ride your bike to work or to the store if that is a possibility. Make it a habit of always taking the stairs. If your default mode is to use your body to get places, you will rack up even more meaningful physical (and mental) benefits.
If you do track your activity, a good goal is at least 10,000 steps per day (factoring in your dedicated workouts and all other activity throughout the day).
There you have it — my philosophy on diet and exercise. This approach takes into account all of my learning and personal experiences, and is built around basic and highly-effective guidelines.
I truly believe if you eat and move in this manner, you will add energy to your days and healthy years to your life.
Andrew Merle writes about living well, including good habits for health, happiness, productivity, and success. Subscribe to his email list at andrewmerle.com.